by Stephanie Pletka
I met up with a friend today. You know this friend – she’s the one who makes your life greater for being in it. That’s her, my new friend Niki – Mom extraordinaire, an incredible photographer, a sister to four brothers, a daughter, a wife, a friend and mom of two. She’s 38, and one of those creative types that seem to splash the world with color and imagination everywhere she goes. When I first met her at a Christmas party a couple of months ago, I noticed her look: edgy, funky, could wear any hat and make it look fabulous. I mentioned how much I loved her shorty-short blonde hair and how few could pull it off, when I discovered HER STORY. Everyone has one, you know…
Up until January 3, 2011, life was cruising by for Niki. But it all changed in a split-second. Those things that seemed to matter – everyday life, paying bills, juggling schedules – all came to a screeching halt when doing a self-breast exam. Having just flown back from a Caribbean vacation and in the best shape of her life, she found a lump the size of a small bb. After a mammogram and ultrasound, she was diagnosed with Stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma; it had already spread to her lymph nodes.
After a long weekend of waiting for a diagnosis, feeling as though she couldn’t wait another second, the doctor called. He was quite upset to give her the report. Yet oddly enough, her first reaction was to comfort and encourage him She explained there was nothing to worry about; it would all be OK.
The news was devastating. When trying to Google someone exactly like herself who had gone through this very experience: a 37 year old mom of two with breast cancer – Stage 2, she found only one person. At that moment, she set out on a mission to be an example to other women by documenting every aspect of her journey. So from then on, she had a camera or video following her around, documenting the entire process.
Breast Cancer Statistics (Source: BreastCancer.org)
- Cancer typically produces no symptoms when the tumor is small and treatable
- The American Cancer Society recommends annual mammograms starting at 40 years old and encourages self-breast exams for younger women
- 226,870 new cases of invasive breast cancer among women in the U.S. are expected in 2012
- Of those invasive cases, 85% will be ductal carcinoma
- Treatment may include radiation, chemotherapy, and/or hormone therapy
The Rush of Emotions Expected After Diagnosis
- Niki fought moments of fear and anxiety. How could this be? At 37, she wasn’t old enough to meet the minimum age requirement for annual mammograms.
- What if she had not done a self exam? She was shocked how fast the stages of cancer had grown from Stage 2a to 2b in a matter of two weeks.
- One minute you’re encouraged and emotions are stable. The next you can be in a grocery store and have a panic attack, not able to breathe. The world closes in.
- Anything can trigger a panic attack and you may not see it coming. Your life flashes before your very eyes, wondering how long you have to live, will you get a clean bill of health, will it creep its way back in and spread unknowingly.
Upon hearing the news, she began the next step, notifying her friends via Facebook. What would she say? She wrote and re-wrote it, erased and edited many versions, then simply wrote: “I HAVE BREAST CANCER.” and pressed SEND. That’s when it became real. When life felt dark. The peripheral became a blur. It was now time to stare the enemy in the face.
The Moment of Empowerment
She planned a “Hair-Shaving Party” after being assured by doctors that she would indeed lose all of her hair. She invited 50 of her closest friends and blasted Katy Perry’sFirework, a song of empowerment, and donated her hair to Locks of Love, a non-profit that provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children in the U.S. and Canada. The black-and-white still shots documenting her journey were emotionally raw. With each click of the camera, out came strength, vulnerability, tears, fear, inspiration . . . with hands held high. She met it face-to-face and took back the power.
Her friends rallied and love came in the form of notes, food, flowers, prayers and personal conversations. Her son’s football coach, parents and students made encouraging signs on Game Day, wearing pink wrist bands, socks and shoelaces to support the cause in her honor. They showed up . . . and they showed up big.
Her “Aha! Moment” came after six months of chemo and 33 rounds of radiation, where she had gained weight from the medications, began losing what little hair re-growth she had . . . hardly recognizing herself. She discovered that while on the outside, her appearance wasn’t sexy and sassy as usual, she found a deeper place, where your soul comes to the forefront. Your looks don’t define your core. They’re just the marketing side of who you are.
Cancer doesn’t define Niki, it’s just a blip on the radar of her entire life. Like a tapestry, our lives are woven pictures, threads of ideas, stories filled with life’s ups and downs to create a brilliant canvas of our life from beginning to end. This thread that found its way into her moment in time, created a platform for her to speak, share her story, empowering other women to walk through the storm. On her last day of radiation, the song “Firework” began to randomly play in the doctor’s office. With tears and perseverance, her journey to the finish line had come full circle. In wrapping up our three-hour conversation at the coffee shop, she looked down to see written on the wooden arm of her chair, read these words: “Logic will get you from A to Z; Imagination will get you Everywhere.” – Albert Einstein
Here’s to embracing life when it strikes and imagining what it CAN and WILL be – a platform to share our “Tapestry of Life” with those around us.
Stephanie Pletka is the creator of the blog, Spit-up & Heels. She lives in Alpharetta, GA with her husband John and four children, Jack, Will, Andrew and Ava.